Thursday, October 23, 2008

The unity of the kind artwork, Roberto Casati

(Translated from Italian by Marcel Lieberman)

It is not easy to identify in a precise way the role that works of art play in our cognitive life. Yet, works of art, like all artifacts, are essentially linked to our cognitive life. A study of the relationships between art and cognition is thus a necessary step towards understanding artistic phenomena and artifacts. A variety of possible outcomes can emerge out of the study of this interaction.

1. The study of artistic artifacts considered as cognitive products can give us access to mechanisms of the mind that go unnoticed in normal cognition.

2. The study of cognitive mechanisms that form the background to artistic practices can enable us to bring into focus certain philosophical problems, for example, the question regarding the "definition" of a work of art and its conditions of identity.

In this article I'll examine an additional problem, which is different from, and in some ways more ambitious than the one posed by works of art considered as an object of cognitive and philosophical study: namely, the question that in a certain sense precedes the examination of topics such as 1 and 2:

3. The study of cognitive activities allows one to clarify and eventually solve the problem of the unity of the kind work of art.

I take it for granted that there is a problem regarding the unity of the kind. Or rather, that there is a unity of the kind and, what is more, that it is a problematic one. Besides the clear linguistic indication ("work of art"), our attitudes towards symphonies, architectural works, films, paintings and sculptures are much more similar to one another than are the attitudes towards, say, a painting by Picasso and a family photo. But this is just the problem: what is it that entities as diverse as a Picasso and a symphony have in common that outweighs the numerous and undoubtedly greater resemblances between a painting and a family photo?

We can examine two types of solutions, radically different from one another, that are based on the study of cognitive mechanisms. The first, which won't be discussed in this paper, is a "circumscribed" solution and appeals to the idea that there exists an artistic faculty or pseudo-faculty that is activated every time we encounter objects considered works of art. This would explain why such objects, as dissimilar as they are, end up in a single category. The theory of the "pseudo-module" seems to have a certain explicative power while using a limited hypothesis. I won't examine its validity; I prefer instead to present another theory, one that is completely different and much broader. This hypothesis places artistic artifacts within a social dynamic. It is in virtue of their becoming becoming elements of such a dynamic that artifacts acquire the wholly extrinsic property of being artistic. Up to this point, the "broad" theory does not differ from a sociological study of art. It adds, however, a fundamental question: why is it that not all artifacts become part of a social dynamic that makes them artistic? The explanation of this dynamic is subject to cognitive constraints, and the study of such constraints can enable us to make a prediction regarding the properties of artistic artifacts.

A mistaken but widespread theory of art

In order to characterize the second, broad theory, let us take a brief look at those things that seem obvious and that generate dubious rationalizations. When one speaks of cognitive theories applied to art, often the only thing one has in mind is a diagram: in one box there is the artist's mind, in another the mind of an observer, which are connected by an arrow that splits in the middle to make room for a box containing the work of art. (I could draw the diagram below, but refuse to do so in order to avoid spreading it even further). This diagram rationalizes and perhaps only illustrates common-sense intuitions regarding the function of cognition and the fact that art might be a type of expression. Through the work, the artist supposedly expresses himself or sends a "message" to his audience. An artist has something "to say". And the audience must reconstruct what the artist meant: the audience's task is that of an interpreter who, by observing or listening to the work and on the basis of personal knowledge and other background factors, is able to read the artist's message.

The message theory is surely a cognitive theory. But it is faced with a number of problems.

The main problem that interests us is that it doesn't explain the unity of the kind "work of art" among its diverse manifestations, apart from attributing to architectural works and dance the task of transmitting messages. In connection to the first problem, it doesn't explain why works of art are admired by people who know little about the history of art, why they survive the test of time (how is it possible to admire works by inaccessible cultures, whose message can no longer be reconstructed?), it doesn't explain why artists like talking about their works and why they apply labels to them (what purpose would it serve, given that the works already express what the artists mean?). Moreover, given that the sender of the message might not have in mind any receiver, or not know who the receiver is, one ends up losing sight of the receiver himself. At the same time, the intentions of the majority of senders are inaccessible: whether because the artist is no longer living, or because no one is so transparent to themselves and it isn't clear that artists really know what they intended to say. The result is that the work, rather than transmitting the elusive intentions of an artist, ends up with the responsibility of expressing the "spirit of an age". Lastly, the message theory does not explain why the artist chose such an implausible way of sending "messages". Why hide messages in a medium that requires so much work on the part of the one receiving the message?

There is certainly some cognitive work at play. But it doesn't seem plausible that it's the one required by the message theory.

The theory of conversational prompts

The alternative theory could be called the theory of conversational prompts. The theory claims that artistic artifacts are objects produced with the chief aim of provoking some type of conversation about their production. Artistic products don't serve as a type of "communication" between the artist and the public: they are not bearers of "messages". Rather, they are objects that must attract attention (and thus must not be instrumental, or hide their instrumental side) within a linguistic context in which they are used as objects of discussion. I won't enter into further details, which might seem somewhat definitory: definitions are notoriously useless for understanding common-sense notions. I would like to show how this hypothesis can work by showing how it is set within a series of anthropological observations regarding the use of artistic artifacts.

The theory explains why artistic artifacts are able to survive through time (if one thinks about it, this survival is quite strange, and at any rate hardly compatible with the idea that artistic products contain a message). They pass the test of time because conversation never stops; it is always in need of topics. Even when it is no longer possible to know the terms of the conversation in which the product was initially inserted as a stimulus, it remains possible to recover the product within a new conversation. It must be noted that the theory does not say that the artist must form the intention of seeing his product placed within a specific conversation (which most probably is the general one of his time), but in any conversation. This fact imposes constraints on the structure of works of art. They are objects that must be able to lend themselves to conversation.

Similarly, the theory explains why works of art pass the test of space, or rather why they can be appreciated by communities that are quite distant from the original community of the work's creator.

The theory explains why artistic products have the aspect they have. Artistic products must solve a variety of problems

- maximize novelty

- attract attention (be sufficiently different from instrumental artifacts)

- be sufficiently complex (through their apparent form, or through the history of their origin) to maximize conversational elements

The theory explains the fluctuation in the esthetic and economic values of artistic products. Having good qualities does not suffice for being a good conversational prompt: there must also be a conversation in which such qualities can be noticed. By postulating the existence of conversations, the theory explains why artistic products survive, are fashionable subjects, and die. (Likewise, it is not enough for a metal to have excellent qualities: resistant to acid, malleable, yellow, in order for it to be of great worth. There also needs to be a context of exchange that confers value to the metal). In the same way, the theory explains the difference between great art and popular art, simply by postulating the existence of different conversations with different rules: among a myriad of conversations (that provide the basis for popular art) one proclaims itself "high". Fine art is nothing other than popular art with an army behind it.

The theory thus explains the existence of degrees of artistic quality, and why certain things are considered art by some and not by others. It explains why a local artistic culture finds the works of another culture of little interest, while recognizing that they are artistic artifacts.

The conversational theory explains the origin of art and artistic artifacts. There is no origin! Works of art were discovered: or rather, it was discovered that certain objects entered into circulation within a community and caused people to talk about them.

It explains why instrumental objects can be works of art (as in the case of architecture, which some esthetic purists seek to expunge from the category of art). The possibility of being inserted within a conversation doesn't seem to depend upon the type of object to be inserted.

The theory explains why artists like to talk about their work and adorn it with explanations (this is particularly difficult to explain in a theory of communication or expression). It is a way of launching a conversation that will give life to the product.

The theory explains why paintings have labels and musical pieces have titles: they are points of entry into a conversation. It therefore explains why museum visitors head straight towards the labels, and place great importance on knowing the author and the subject.

It explains why an artist's biography interests us; and it explains why we are satisfied by the fact that the biography is in some way reflected in the work. It enables us to use the work as a narrative prompt.

The theory explains why works of art are acquired with no regard for the artist, like invitations to a conversation that are disconnected from the person of the author.

Finally, the theory's hypothesis that artists produce works with an eye towards possible conversations about their products, allows us to solve almost immediately the problem regarding the unity of the kind work of art. Works of art are objects created with the chief aim of making a conversation possible. The main proviso is meta-representational: the author must have the intention that his work be a conversational prompt. The proviso excludes cases of artifacts that are accidentally, but not essentially, currency for conversational exchange, like mathematical theories or political discourses which are not works of art.

The conversation theory and the time of a work of art

The intention of creating a work of art doesn't focus on the moment of creation, nor the moment of reception, but has a projection into the future; it is focused on the theme of the conversation. The difference between the message theory and the conversational theory concerns a deep metaphysical aspect of works of art: their relation to time. The conversational theory is by nature projective and has an articulation that unfolds in the future. Works of art have an evolution, linked to the exercising of discussions that change in the course of time. The message theory is temporally static and concerns a fixed point in the past. In the message theory time essentially concerns the packaging of the message: the moment at which the author consigns the message to the work. An eventual interpretation constitutes an extrinsic aspect, and therefore does not introduce a new temporal element.

The intuition that guides the message theory is that works of art are like packages, wrappers ("vehicles", a "medium"). One needs to unpack them in order to reach their hidden essence, the message itself. The artist leaves the message in the work just as a castaway does with a message in a bottle. The precise methods of the unpacking process cannot be foreseen a priori by the artist who doesn't know on which beach the bottle will wash up, or whose eyes will read the message. For this reason, one must leave room in the message theory for the notion of an open work: the sender's intention would be to produce a message that is at least partially indeterminate, that partly constrains interpretation, but leaves space for the receiver. The notion of an open work is a clear case of theoretic artifacts generated by the message theory. Only if one thinks that works must necessarily be interpreted in order to extract the artist's intention, must one then give an open structure to such an intention, faced with the mutability of possible interpretive contexts. But the necessity of "recovering" the artist's intention doesn't exist, given the inexistence of such an intention. Naturally, the artist can have intentions, but these concern the use of the work and not its interpretation. Emotions, messages, authors' intentions for communicating a message, substitutions of experience: these are possible, but accidental, ingredients of the dynamic that leads to the production, and assures the circulation, of a work of art. Works of art are not signs. Rather, they are more like toys.

What is a conversation? Empirical hypotheses

The conversational theory makes use of a concept, namely conversation, which is certainly indeterminate. What is a conversation? Can there be inner conversations (meditation)? Which conversation does the artist have in mind, a specific or general conversation? In fact, the theory shifts the indeterminacy of the concept of a work of art to the indeterminacy of the concept of conversation. In itself, this might be an advantage of the theory, to the extent that the concept of artistic artifact has fuzzy borders.

The fact that conversations are different in time and space does not create problems in so far as some conversational elements - the choice of topos, the way of developing it - are subject to cultural universals. Here, the theory makes an empirical prediction that will have to be tested: if what counts are not the conversations actually taking place, but the generic aspects of conversation, a study of the latter should bring to light some elements of works of art that usually go unnoticed. Where does the study of cognition come in regarding the conversational theory? In the fact that not all subjects are good for conversation and assure successful conversations. Studying the normative constraints of conversational success will enable us to make interesting empirical predictions regarding the content and form of artistic artifacts.

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