Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Alva Noë, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and member of Berkeley's Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences. His book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature has just come out.
Dr Noë began his lecture by looking out at the crowd and announcing, "I'm falling in love with you as a collective." He mentioned his upbringing in New York City and recounted a couple of recent 'back in New York' anecdotes, including a very funny tale of asking a barista if he could pay for his coffee with a credit card and receiving the jibe, "What is this, 1990?" Personally, I wouldn't want that coffee-slinger on my lawn either.
Dr Noë began the lecture proper by posing three questions: What is art? Why does it matter? What does art mattering say about our nature? He noted that the current fashion is thinking that the answer to these questions lies in neuroscience. One criticism is that the neuroscientific model holds that there is an adequate conception of human biology "off the shelf". Perhaps art can help us frame a more adequate conception of the self to move neuroscience forward. Art lies at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and vision science.
Vision science is important because we live in a world of solid objects and three-dimensional space, but what we receive are retinal images- how do we experience so much out of so little? Dr Noë recalled a conversation he had with an artist about vision science, in which his question was turned around- the artist, his father, countered that the real question is why we perceive so little when there is so much.
Dr Noë noted that viewing art is an enacted approach, it is not something that happens inside of us- experiencing art is something we do. We act, we achieve. Our environment, other people, culture, and technology are not in our brains. Similarly, the value of money is not inherit in the paper, the aesthetics of dance are not in the muscles of the dancer. Experience is triggered on us by the environment, but it is something that we achieve... or that we fail to achieve.
Can we receive guidance from art? Is art something to study, or a domain of research? If art is research, what kind of research is it? Dr Noë likened art to philosophical research- art involves a reorganizational process. As a research project, sometimes one just doesn't "get" art. If one is lucky, one doesn't give up on a particular piece, one tries harder to figure it out so that things stand out- formerly "flat" works take on structure, interest. There is a passage from not seeing to seeing, or from seeing to seeing differently. This transformation allows one to gain access to what was already there- art affords us an opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of reorganization. The best philosophies are similar reorganizational processes. The reorganization isn't included in the price of admission, though, it has to be achieved.
Dr Noë then noted that artists make stuff... paintings, performances. Artists do, they craft, they manufacture. We don't, though, measure the success of art by how it works. He contrasted Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine with a photograph of a jacket on a shopping website. Looking at the painting, one doesn't have to think of the Duke of Milan's mistress, but looking at the jacket should make one think of the jacket and wish to purchase it- the success of the painting isn't like the success of the catalog entry.
Artists don't make things because they are special, the very act of making is intrinsically special to us. The practice of making organizes us- making makes us. Artists don't make tools which have functions, thus Dr Noë's categorization of art as "strange tools", tools which don't perform functions, but which reveal us to ourselves.
Dr Noë went on a tangent about boredom. Boredom comes in many varieties- life is a metronome, an undifferentiated sea of time into which you are plunged. He recounts boring summer days in his childhood, sick of the heat, the bugs, and his brother. He noted that this sort of boredom is rarely experienced by adults. Adult life is organized by projects, lives are arcs with beginnings, middles, and defined ends. The only way in which adults can experience the sort of childhood boredom is by looking at art... Dr Noë quipped about a "wrist-slittingly boring" performance that he had been subjected to. Boring art need not be bad art... just as dabbling in love presents the risk of heartbreak, dabbling in art presents the risk of boredom. Art obliterates the arc of organization, it gifts us with boredom and affords us the opportunity to deal with it.
Dr Noë noted that, while humans are mammals, we are the worst breast feeders on the planet. He noted that human babies fall asleep at the breast or are distracted by noise, necessitating jiggling on the part of the nurser- breast feeding while basic, spontaneous, and biological, is experienced cognitively. Breast feeding has a rhythm, a dynamic structure. The experience of breast feeding is almost linguistic, it's a pre-conversational type of communication, but it has a conversational structure, involving posture, dialect, organized activity. Besides providing nourishment, breast feeding releases oxytocin, and fosters bonding. It is an activity which can be pleasurable or fraught with affect. He brought up the topic of breastfeeding to illustrate an organized activity which can be likened to other organized activities common in human behavior
Perception itself is organized, but not necessarily social. Perception not only involves one looking, but one acting... it's not contemplative, but action-oriented. Lives can be thought of as nesting structures of organized activity. We are organized creatures but we are not masters of organization. We are creatures of habit, but we can lack self-awareness of organization. To underscore the nesting structures of organized activity, Dr Noë used the example of choreography vs dancing... is choreography just more dancing? He likened choreography to meta-dancing, or a philosophy of dancing. Choreography influences dance, which loops back and changes us. Writing and speech have a similar relationship. Literate societies experience speech through writing. Writing is a biologically moderated tool which allows us to amplify speech. Dr Noë indicated that, though he was speaking without notes, he was speaking in a literate fashion, organized into paragraphs. The looping changes us, it provides a reorganizing and an emancipation. Art puts organization on display.
Dr Noë finished his lecture with an aphorism: Art doesn't say, "check me out", it says "see me if you can".
The post-lecture Q&A began in lively fashion- Dr Noë called to the bartender for a drink and, as he was sipping a double bourbon, joked that this was the first time he was actually drinking during the course of a presentation. While he had lectured while hung over before, tippling while speaking was a first for him. I think it's fair to say the the collective was beginning to love him as an individual. Some bastard in the audience asked him how he would compare art to non-human activities such as dominance displays, mating dances, and such courtship practices as bowerbird nest building. After a quip about art helping people get laid, he cited the research of Dr Stephen Davies, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland, who has written about the role of evolution in the origin and development of art. Davies likened art to a spandrel, a byproduct of an evolutionary adaptation which which itself doesn't improve survival. Art is a domain which employs intelligence, not getting art is a signal that something is wrong. Art is like the male nipple, a mark of normalcy. It is one step beyond an evolutionary explanation, though.
Dr Noë's talk was engaging and thought-provoking. I have to say that I tend to be biased toward nuts-and-bolts lectures dealing with specific topics, such as the role of cytokines in tumor formation. It was a nice change of pace to be presented with a lecture about 'big picture' topics, to be forced out of my usual comfort zone and confronted with an esoteric subject. I'm not a philistine, honest! Thanks to Dr Noë, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for a fantastic lecture which got me out of my typical psychological/cognitive channels.
Here is a video of Dr Noë presenting a similar lecture on the Google campus:
Pour yourself a drink, I'd suggest a double bourbon, and settle in... soak in that Secret Science Club ambiance.