Click headers to view full-text PDFs. . . .
A twofold response to the arts is proposed: a conscious engagement with art’s content,
what it means or represents, and an automatic engagement with its actual perceptual
complexity. Automatic denotes any of our thinking or behavior that we are unaware of.
We engage most phenomena just long enough to identify them, but with artwork we
look and listen longer. All art forms stabilize sights and/or sounds allowing them to be
re-experienced and often use repetition in their structure. These longer and repeatable
interactions with artworks allow more complete, accurate, and refined sensory
processing than do normal interactions with more transient everyday experiences.
The resulting ability to better absorb sensory experience generalizes to non-art
situations and allows us to better process complex perceptual experiences outside the
realm of the arts. These complex perceptual processes are automatic; we are not
directly aware of their functioning.Gestures accompanying speech can express
knowledge we don’t know we have. In an elaborate form of gesture the artist’s motor
system can draw on automatic perceptual processes, thus Stravinsky’s assertion that
his fingers composed Petrouchka and the copious insistence from artists of all kinds
that they often don’t know what they are doing until they do it. The increased perceptual
ability resulting from interaction with the arts gives us pleasure and makes us fitter.
An Artist’s Inquiry into the Cognitive, Emotional, and Evolutionary Basis for Art
Summary: A painting, a piece of music, a dance, are complex perceptual events. These events, stabilized as works of art, can be experienced repeatedly, enabling us to assimilate complexities we could not master in a single exposure. Intelligence may in part be defined as the ability to assimilate complex events, and assimilating complex perceptual events, though largely a nonconscious process, is beneficial. It is therefore reinforced by the pleasure we experience when we engage in such a process. The above is enough to explain our continued practice and enjoyment of art. Beyond this, we can speculate on an epiphenomenal function for nonconscious perceptual knowledge of the world.
BRIEF THEORY OF MEANINGLESS ART
A painting, a piece of music, a dance are complex perceptual events. These events, stabilized as works of art, can be experienced repeatedly enabling us to assimilate complexities we could not master in a single exposure. Intelligence may in part be defined as the ability to assimilate complex events. Assimilating complex perceptual events though largely a non-conscious process is beneficial and so is reinforced by the pleasure, satisfaction and/or mood elevation we experience when we engage in such behavior. In a sense the pleasure comes from the process of perceiving and assimilating the work of art rather than the art work itself or any meanings attributed to it by the conscious mind.
The theory describes an adaptive function for engagement with the arts. This basic function of the arts explains why this kind of behavior has been preserved for thirty to sixty thousand years and across all cultures. The theory also explains how so many different, often contradictory, meanings or interpretations can be attributed to the same work of art. They are a conscious mind’s rationale for an emotional response generated by non-conscious processes.
Art is semantically equivocal. Meaning is attributed to art by individuals and cultures. It is not inherent in the work. The genres of still life and landscape were invented by painters to avoid meaning. The first still life and the first landscape without narrative or historical figures were radical paintings. These paintings are about perception; the artists perception of the subject matter and the artists and viewers perception of the finished work. With abstraction the initial perception comes from perceptual memory and then from perceiving what happens in the work as it develops. We tend to think of perception as a kind of simple automatic thing we have in common with other animals. But, as more and more is learned about the brains contribution to perception it becomes clear that, as suggested by David Premack, the quality of perception determines the quality of intelligence. We, however, have a drive to interpret. It serves us very well in practical life. Being constantly concerned with meaning, purpose and cause and effect is adaptive. This successful habit perseveres even when there is nothing to interpret. In fact, those areas of human experience where meaning is largely absent are the most interpreted. They provide a hay day for interpretation because there are no limits, no constraints; there are no inherent essential meanings which when discovered put an end to further interpretation. Looking at these areas it becomes clear not only that anything can be interpreted but, that anything can be interpreted in any way. Art is one of these areas, a semantic free-for-all. This perspective is possible if one emphasizes experience and recognizes that the phenomenon of meaning is circumscribed. Invoking meaning is an
adaptive mental function or strategy for organizing experience but meaning is not a characteristic of the world. In other words, we use the mental constructs of meaning the way an elephant uses its trunk, as a tool for dealing with the world. The mistake that causes so much trouble in art and religion is that we take this practical adaptive strategy to be based on an objective all pervasive quality of the universe. The phenomenon of meaning, however, inheres in human conscious minds not in the universe. (1) An organism which only has the ability to see red believes the world is red. An organism which must interpret believes the world can be interpreted. To quote Rumi, “The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why.” You can’t understand art or reality. You can to some extent experience them. The full experience of art and the world unconstrained by the structures of meaning is probably enlightenment.
The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why
- Jelaluddin Rumi
Every work of art is both what it means and what it is. In arts language, it has
both content and form.
Form is very specific. It is exactly what it is. Meaning or content, on the other
hand, is often ambiguous. The same form can mean different, often
contradictory, things to different people. And one person may find multiple
meanings in a single specific configuration.
Steven Mithen in his Prehistory of the Mind, writes about art as though what art
means is all that matters. For him, in order to be art an artifact must be “either
representational or provide evidence for being part of a symbolic code ...” (p.155)
and, he says, “ the three cognitive processes critical to making art - mental
conception of an image, intentional communication and the attribution of meaning
- were all present in the early human mind” (p.162).
Those who study art making know that many artists do not start with consciously
preconceived images and those who do usually modify that conception to a
greater or lesser extent in response to what happens in the developing picture or
“The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is
difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is
true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do. ...your
subjective experience consists largely of the story that your(conscious mind)
tells itself about what is going on” -Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow
We are unaware of most of what we see. We are aware of only that in our visual field
which our conscious mind focuses on, but we remember both the conscious and the
unconscious visual information we take in. So, we have in our heads a lot of visual
knowledge derived from our interaction with the world that we don’t know we have.
Painters seem to work from this unconscious store of visual memory. It is part of the
reason they paint the way they do. It moves them to paint a certain way, gives them
the urge to develop a certain configuration. In his book, The Daily Practice of Painting
the internationally prominent painter, Gerhard Richter, says of realizing his work, “I am
more and more aware of the importance of the unconscious process that has to take
place while one is painting - as if something were working away in secret. You can
almost just stand by and wait until something comes. It has been called 'inspiration' or
or 'an idea from heaven' - but it’s far more down to earth and far more complicated than