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.