Cognitive Theories of Art (4)

I had thought I was at the end of cognitive theories and ready to move onto non-cognitive ones.  But then, in thinking of these matters over the past few days, realized that one could plausibly claim I had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick entirely.  My discussion in the previous three posts assumed a representational understanding of knowledge, cognition, and art.  That is: art was cognitive insofar as it gave us a representation of some fact (some content) that the audience could now grasp through the medium of the art object.  The goal was to use the art object as the means toward some insight.  And that way of understanding the matter also seemed to imply that the insight could be articulated.  The critic (Jameson or Nussbaum) could tell us in words what the art work had taught us. 

But a more radical cognitive theory (and clearly Langer and Massumi are trying to give us this kind of radical theory) would argue 1) that the art work does not represent some content which the audience is given the means to cognize; 2) that the art work instead presents (or is itself the embodiment of a fact or content) what is to be grasped; 3) that our grasping of that content is immediate in the same way that perception is immediate; and 4) that what we grasp is not translatable into another vocabulary.  In short, the art work’s value resides precisely in its doing something that cannot be done in some other way. 

The art work functions as an entirely different mode of knowledge, one that does offer important insights (or illuminations) about the world and about humans in the world.  Those insights are not available through any other means and are not reducible to expression by any other vocabulary.  The heresy of paraphrase.  Any translation of the art work into other kinds of statements inevitably misses (at least) part of its point even if it doesn’t misunderstand that point entirely.

This kind of heroic theory of art is everywhere in modernism and in the avant-garde sensibilities that still persist even in the postmodern disillusionment with modernism.  A few observations are in order—and these observations suggest that we are entering some fuzzy border land between cognitive and non-cognitive theories of art.

Why fuzzy?  Because to insist art yields insights but through an entirely different, non-representational and non-mediated, process is to commit the theorist to a revisionary account of what knowledge is and how it might be gained. Thus, the theory can go two ways: expand our understanding of cognition or celebrate the powers of and capacities enabled by non-cognitive modes of interaction.  Which path the theorist chooses is mostly inconsequential.  The real pay-off is in the details of how art is understood to enact its powers, not in whether those powers are deemed cognitive or non-cognitive.  The key is to move beyond a hard-core realist or empirical understanding of cognition, and it is not of much importance whether that move is seen as an expansion of our concept of cognition or as introducing process of non-cognition.

The Langer/Massumi approach resonates with all of those modernist attempts to side-step mediation and representation, to be the thing itself rather than some imitation (Aristotle) or representation (Locke) or sign (prison-house of language) of the thing.  And there is a very strong desire to nullify any and all attempts at reduction, of claims that this appearance is really (au fond) an expression of this underlying fact.  A denial of surface/depth dichotomies in favor of a metaphysics of appearances (as all there is) runs from Nietzsche through to Foucault, from Wilde through to Ad Reinhardt.

The cognitive/non-cognitive split does seem a bit more consequential at this point.  Basically, the desire to emphasize that the art work is the thing itself, not some representation of some truth or underlying non-manifest reality (as in Jameson), can go one of two ways: 1) a fierce denial of meanings, of putting the work in service to any kind of “take-away,” any kind of transformation of the audience.  The work is just a mute thing, which is a glorious achievement in our over-signed world, where (in William James’s words) “the trail of the human serpent is over everything.”  Art “dehumanizes” (in Ortega y Gasset’s phrase)—and thus offers us a liberation from our over-cultured existence. Ad Reinhardt chooses this path. 

2) The thing itself is seen as numinous.  This is the Kandinsky route.  The painting does not represent anything other than itself, but what it presents is shot through and through with spirituality, with an energy or aura that is lost in the materialistic modern world.  The painting puts us in touch with, helps us come to know (hence cognize), spiritual realities.  It seems to me that for every Ad Reinhardt, insisting that his paintings as just mute objects, there are four Kandinskys (Mondiran, Malevich, and Rothko among that number) in this debate about the aims and meanings of modernist non-representational art.  It seems fair to say Reinhardt is non-cognitivist while Kandinsky is a cognitivist.  Knowledge is not at issue with Reinhardt (something like pure perception divorced from knowledge is the aim), while getting to know something modern culture obscures is the whole point for Kandinsky.

I am, despite my attachment to meaning, much more attracted to the Reinhardt stance than to the Kandinsky one.  That fact probably reflects my resolute secularism and atheism.  I am that odd mixture: a positivist with a life-long interest in and engagement with the arts.  I suspect that the humanities are absolutely and irrevocably tied to meaning.  What the humanities do is to ponder, probe, speculate about the meanings of things, including art works.  But that probing and speculating occurs because the meanings of art works, historical events, ordinary language, political actions, social interactions etc. are neither self-evident nor stable.  So I don’t need—or perhaps even want—art works that come laden with pre-determined meaning(s).  Give me the thing itself and then let me go to work on it.  Don’t come selling me your spiritual claptrap. Or predigested political message(s).

I suspect therefore (although I haven’t worked this through entirely for myself) that I would prefer to retain a fairly rigid positivist definition of what counts as knowledge.  Instead of a revisionary understanding of what counts as cognition, I think I’d prefer allowing for different modes of interaction with the world that would then be understood as non-cognitive.  A simple example is any habitual action.  A trained tennis player or pianist will perform a series of actions that are so instantaneous that thought does not intervene.  In fact, if the player allows thought to intervene, he will almost invariably perform the action less well.  Is the tennis player cognizing that the incoming serve is going to swerve to the left and that he should hit it with his backhand and in such a way that the ball will go down the line rather than cross-court in its flight over the net?  That just seems a bad description of what is taking place.  Cognition, as the metaphors we use about it seem to suggest, requires “distance,” “reflection”—and hence time (some kind of stepping away from action and event after their transpiring).

This dichotomy between practice/action (the heat of the moment) and reflective distance troubles our understanding of art’s relation to cognition.  If art is another way of knowing, then who gets to experience that “other way”?  The artist or the audience? I am attracted to seeing the artist as akin to the tennis player or the pianist.  The practice of the art is a process of discovery in the moment; oh, this is how I react, this is how I interact (with the media of my art) and what unfolds from that interaction.  The unexpected arrives—and can be deeply satisfying and feel like a discovery, an achievement, a new understanding of oneself and the world.

But the difference is that the artist gets to revise.  The time pressures that make irreversible the actions of the tennis player during the game and the pianist during the concert do not apply to the artist.  She gets to revise, to wipe out what now seems to her a mistake.  There is reflection built into the process of artistic creation in a way that is not true of the “real time” unfolding of a game or concert. “Real time” in quotes because the time of games is artificial in lots of ways; but that time is real in the sense of being irreversible, unrevisable.

Plus there is a deep asymmetry between the position of the artist and of the audience.  The artist is engaged in an action of making and of discovery through the making.  The audience perceives what the artist has made.  True: much art since 1900 has worked hard to overcome this divide, to make the audience “work,” to render the audience less passive.  But there remains the gap between the process of making the work and the brute fact of the finished (inert) product that is displayed.  Again, much modern and avant-garde art has struggled mightily to elevate process over product.  We might say that “the product” is defined by having entered into irreversible time. Once in the museum, the painting is beyond revision. (Think, however, of all the poets who keep revising their poems for subsequent re-printings; Yeats and Auden are only particularly notorious examples.)

I would still say (just as a matter of common-sense) that what the artist experiences (and whatever cognitive contents emerge from that experience) are different from what the audience can and might experience.  This would follow self-evidently from the fact that the artist and the audience are doing different things.  Thus, any cognitive (and, most likely, any non-cognitive) theory of art is also going to have to account for the different experiences of artist and audience. 

I still think it comes down to the question: what do we learn from a work of art?  The artist learns about her craft and about her capacities for working with the materials of her media.  That engagement might very well also tell her something about herself (a gain in self-knowledge) and about the world (meanings emerge as she struggles to create a work that she thinks others will find interesting or compelling).  The audience learns about what is possible in a particular medium when it is shaped by a distinctive talent and, maybe, sees the world illuminated in unexpected and delightful (or depressing) ways.  To see things with new eyes, from a different perspective.  To have the world opened up, made anew.  The strongest claim for the aestheticist is that what is learned by both artist and audience could not be learned in any other way—and that what is learned is valuable, is life-enhancing, is an attainment we would not want to have to do without.

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