Art as a way of Knowing

This weekend I attended the Friday morning session of a 2 day conference in San Francisco called "Art as a Way of Knowing." This conference brought together a very interdisciplinary crowd of artists, designers, museum curators, theorists of various kinds, popular writers, and more. The general theme, precisely formulated by the title, was the idea that the principles that inform art and design can be adopted by the sciences to present science to the public in an engaging manner. This topic is of special interest to science museum curators, and was fittingly sponsored by the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The discussions ranged from the very pragmatic--how should artistic folks engage the NSF through grant writing projects?--to the theoretical--how can the art experience be an experience of knowing? While both topics are interesting, I was particularly drawn to the latter. I attended primarily in order to listen to two talks: one by my professor Simon Penny (to whom I owe the privilege of being allowed to attend), and the other by philosopher Alva Noe, of UC Berkley, who is well known in the areas that I focus on--phenomenology, perception, consciousness, etc.

I will focus on Alva Noe's talk, which was very stimulating and prompted me to reply to him at length. I found his thesis ambitious and engaging, and his response was respectful and enthusiastic. This was a great experience of philosophizing.

Noe claimed that the essential features of art are the essential features of philosophy. They are:
1. Art has no subject matter.
2. Art is process, not results.
3. Art is fundamentally problematic.
Of course, these all require expansion. I will proceed by explaining how these features are supposed to be shared by art and philosophy in order to further elucidate their general meaning. As for (1), art and philosophy can, in principle, be about anything and everything. Anything that could be the possible object of human cognition could be the subject matter for art or philosophy. (2) means that "art" is not "art objects," but rather the process of making art. Similarly, "philosophy" is not a bunch of books, but rather the process of philosophizing. (3), I think, is a safe assumption. Both artists and philosophers are constantly justifying their existence. Art and philosophy are both "inessential" in the purely survival-oriented practically minded sense in which that term is used, and thus have to perennially explain themselves.

I objected to Noe, slightly on principle and slightly in order to play devil's advocate. I thought, shouldn't we say that philosophy is more like science than art? Both scientists and philosophers attempt to draw general conclusions. Both seek out formal features of phenomena that could, in principle, apply to an indefinite number of particular instances in space and time. Both are interested in ideal objects of thought. Both overlook, quite eagerly you might say, the concrete particular uniqueness that reveals a given phenomenon as a mere approximation of an abstract property or law.

The artist, on the other hand, is precisely concerned with the concrete, material, particular phenomenon. The artist is concerned with this piece of clay or this canvas. The artist certainly cares about process, but is also oriented towards a result. The artist's activity is aimed at some work's getting done.

Now, we might better understand Noe's claim by considering the experience of art rather than the artist and his productions themselves. In viewing the work of art, the theorist or critic attempts to pick out properties or features that make the work meaningful. The viewer seeks to come to some sort of understanding of the work. Even if the work "resists understanding," this is a sort of way of assigning it signficance--of getting it. Thus, as it turns out, the experience of art is akin to philosophizing, insofar as one seeks to understand a concrete particular by connecting it to other experiences one has had, or could have. In this way, the experience of art--the attempt to understand the work of art--is a way of knowing not unlike philosophy. But does this modify Noe's thesis? Can we correctly say that the philosopher is a kind of artist, or the artist a kind of philosopher? I don't think we can.


  1. "In viewing the work of art, the theorist or critic attempts to pick out properties or features that make the work meaningful."

    I agree that this is what the critic does, but in my view this points to the shortcomings of criticism rather than the experience of art. While context and analysis can deepen this experience, they can also overshadow or supplant it.

    The specificity of art extends to the consumption of it, an encounter that, however banal, is nevertheless also unique.

    How should a critic write about art without attempting to impose a single interpretation? How should a viewer of art use criticism to enrich rather than limit the experience of it? (These are not rhetorical questions.)

    I would add to your critique that pointing out certain (debatable) similarities hardly proves the case. Art is both a process and a product. Philosophy is a process and, I would argue, a search for a framework or perhaps a description of a larger process that extends beyond the single instance of philosophizing.

    Very good article.

  2. This is an interesting line of thought. While I was reading your argument that philosophy is closer to science than the artist's process of making art I was reflecting on my experience as a painter. You say, "Both scientists and philosophers attempt to draw general conclusions." When I approach a subject I aim to reduce it to its most general properties. In a landscape for instance I might focus on one large bright shape of sky against one large dark shape of land. I enjoy letting the light that envelopes what I am perceiving reduce everything to its 'mere approximation,' to quote you again. I think that when I am successful, people viewing my work could have a distinct feeling of familiarity and belonging (if the big issues are appropriately dealt with) without having any particular knowledge of the subject matter that was the jumping off point for the work. What I am getting at is that there are laws that govern light and times of day and if they are approximated well, the specifics fall into the shadow of the larger properties. A lot of what I do when I am painting basically falls into the realm of trying to embody a state and communicate it visually an effort to share that experience with the viewer. I guess that does look to an end result, but is it really a result if there are just two people sharing a spiritual state that is beyond space and time? It is actually time for me to go to bed now. Thanks for the post!

  3. Thank you both for these fantastic replies. I will respond in order.
    Garth, your deepening of my initial analysis is very helpful to me. We both agree on the general projects of the critic and the philosopher. I also agree that the critic is caught in a sort of bind in that he is charged with rendering the unique particularity of the art experience in general (aka communicable) principles/features. Your two non-rhetorical questions cut to the heart of the matter. This is the challenge we viewers of art--and philosophers for that matter--are charged with. I would defend the project of the art theorist/critic. I agree that criticism could end up overshadowing or supplanting the uniqueness of the art experience, but I still think its a worthy task, precisely because of the challenges you point out.

  4. Alanna, your perspective as a painter is fascinating to me. Is it fair to say you don't care much for Rembrandt? The kind of painting you describe resonates with my understanding of the post-impressionists, like Cezanne and Van Gogh. Your description of the unique lighting that you must necessarily attend to when capturing a scene, in its particular way of appearing to a subject, and your aim of generating a sense of "familiarity," is something I will have to think about a lot more. I am very interested in trying to understand the art experience in terms of empathy. My question for you would be, how do you know when a work is finished?

  5. Phil, I adore Rembrandt. If I could be Rembrandt, I would.
    Your question is a perpetual one in land of art making. Every painting I make is an exploration of that question. There have been a few times when I have stopped short of something, not wanting to over do it, but on the whole I'm naturally inclined to work a painting or drawing until it falls just over the edge of integrity. I guess I am defining integrity here as a working balance or conversation between the impetus or state behind the work and its final form. I do think I have made strides in this area though. It is amazing how long it takes for internal things to manifest externally. I feel like I can see a thing painted in my mind far ahead of how I can make it appear on canvas.
    I love talking about art, even though words can feel maddeningly insufficient, so if you want to carry on a conversation in the future as you ruminate on the art experience and empathy, I would be very happy to oblige.

  6. @ Alanna: oh don't worry, I will certainly be bugging you about this in the future! Thanks for the great thoughts!