A&O 2020 class notes Jan 14


TUESDAY January 14, 2020


what we accomplished in the first meeting of our seminar and what I was aiming at … including what stood out for us

To get ahead of questions you may have, this is a seminar and its focus is on conversation about our theme, the biology of art and aesthetic experience.  We will all have the shared experience of a few core readings, we will all discuss, and we will all pursue the tangents we find personally attractive.  We are hunters and gatherers of information about ourselves, each other, and the world. 


Today we need to get to know each other and what to expect this spring.  An important aspect of conversation is always intuition, with all that implies about authenticity.  To that end we will undertake a couple of “mind maps” of ideas—a familiar technique in some circles for exploring mental webs of related ideas—a way of discovering and exploring the connections between thoughts that may otherwise go unrecognized.


IDEAS THAT STOOD OUT FOR YOU (from end-of-class check-in’s):

  • DEEP
  • Eye contact psychology and biology
  • Connectedness in general; and within subconsciousness
  • How art changes us and our biology changes how we make art
  • The cross-overs between art and biology
  • Improvisatory discussion



  • ART as COMMUNICATION (expression, medium, reception), that were connected to other ideas that involved apparent dichotomies:
  • NATURE/NURTURE  (congenital/acquired)
  • SENTIENCE/SAPIENCE   (feelings/thoughts)
  • DEGREE of AUTHENTICITY in COMMUNICATING (is it “heart-to-heart” and/or a “meeting of minds”)
    • “free association” and Stream of consciousness
    • Looks like a spider web anchored on ideas about art and science BUT in which you are at the center (helped by remembering a quote from Henry James: Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider‑web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air‑borne particle in its tissue.”) (link to complete essay)
  • EYE CONTACT seemed a good first phenomenon to bridge gaps between disciplines: be sure to look at  the Abramović art “performance” at MOMA, and a recent BBC article, “WHY MEETING ANOTHER’S GAZE IS SO POWERFUL”  (then compare the ideas emerging to what Eugene Delacroix said)


Okay, so our process for exploring ART is anchored in three ideas:

  • EXPRESSION (of art; creation (deliberate or not) representing thoughts or feelings)
  • MEDIUM (the way information is communicated (an art form: visual, auditory… etc)
  • RECEPTION (perceiving & integrating thoughts or feelings)  


AND our process for exploring its biology begins with the NATURAL HISTORY of ideas

BY NATURAL HISTORY I mean the perspectives embraced by DEEP ETHOLOGY:   

·     DEEP is an acronym for four main perspectives of biology (Development, Ecology, Evolution and Physiologists) and

·     ETHOLOGY is comparative psychology with a (very) strong emphasis on behavior expressed in a natural environment. 

Our interest in human behavior appreciates that at any level of organization (from cell to society) our behavior-of-interest occurs at the INTERSECTION of the four disciplines.  That is, to most fully understand the causes and consequences of any behavioral pattern we must be able to appreciate its development, ecology, evolution, and physiology.
To see how this way of looking at behavior articulates with our class and discussions take a look at some recent writings on EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGY.  Unlike traditional academic philosophy, this species attempts to look at REAL PEOPLE IN THE REAL WORLD—not idealized.  In this, it is like ethology, looking at “real animals” in their “real world” (as opposed to “lab animals” in cages).   There is a good use for lab research with inbred animals in artificial environments, but the preoccupation for control has led to some terrible misunderstandings. 
Look also at the our A&O website on CONNECTIONS

To understand the problems and possible solutions we will play and/or wrestle with in class,  I hope we can become familiar with some ideas from both art and science (as traditionally viewed) that have stood out to me over the years. (“over the years” = we have to be wary of getting stuck in the past: knowledge has a half-life, like drugs in the body or atoms undergoing radioactive decay)


CHECK-Ins:  Class will usually begin with a verbal account of your experiences related to course content.  In this we value “authenticity”  the expression of consciousness and the deepest meanings accessible to us that you can be comfortable sharing. We are pursuing a meeting of minds and a heart-to-heart conversation.  (sapience and sentience)


The greatest problem we have is communications; we will try to balance two urgent human needs: to KNOW and to be KNOWN  (we are social organisms)

  • We want to establish a community of understanding
  • NATURE/NURTURE:  We can use our culturally received ideas about ART and BIOLOGY as a though they constituted a converging spiraling helix of threads of information from inside ourselves and from outside as we balance our who we are with the environment in which we find ourselves, representing the two great processes in our development: INDIVIDUATION and SOCIALIZATION.


NOTE: Sometimes I use obscure words—they have less baggage, especially applied out of their usual context—and since words are the principal medium we are stuck with, we can try to make the best of it.  For example:

Last year, I Asked people to look at article on Marina Abramović’s 700 hour performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in a piece called The Artist is Present. (Arthur Danto compared his time with Abramović to ‘a shamanic trance’, and described the show as ‘magic’ in The New York Times. More than 1,500 people came and sat with Abramović, and 750,000 attended as observers.)

 LINK: marina-abramovic-at-moma-in-2010

This brings up issue of WORDS  and my gloss on the article was words might refer to things with more-or-less precision, but can never be the things (unless the thing is the word); we are satisfied when for practical purposes we agree sufficiently to move on in a mutually satisfying way ..the understanding is “good enough.”   In other words, words are not the things they represent: “The map is not the territory.” (“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness—Alfred Korzybski 1948:58)[i] and see Borges on the map-maker [ii] 

 [all experience may be ineffable – we simply look for the best approximation of what we believe – and (to minimize dissonance) either what we perceive or think or express can be “tweaked” to make the imprecision less uncomfortable.]   [BEST APPROXIMATION of TRUTH can refer to the highest ambition of all communications –particularly in SCIENCE; sometimes spoken of as an asymptote of truth –always approaching but never touching the lines that frame it.]


 “But what about the ineffable knowledge that we might gain during a performance by Abramović, or in a moment of religious ecstasy, or when we are moved by a piece of music? [or when a scholar goes AHA!] Chasing the origins of the unsayable doesn’t account for how inexpressible experiences can affect, enable and transform us. Perhaps there is no universal answer, but that shouldn’t stop us from reflecting on the question. ‘If philosophy can be defined at all,’ Adorno said, ‘it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about.’”  [I believe that the effort itself affects—enlarges the repertoire and competence of—the perpetually developing person.  In the maelstrom of continual disintegration and renewal which is a sentient self.  [It is always changing and yet the same—how does that work?] [appropriate connection: In Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous attempt to clarify the relation between language and reality, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), he concluded: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.]


The Abramović art “performance” at MOMA, also brings up the very interesting ETHOLOGICAL issue of EYE CONTACT.  We affect each other by eye-contact, even physiologically (the oxytocin-gaze positive loop) and even with (some) other species (e.g., dogs: see Nagasawa et al., 2015)    Take a look at a recent BBC article, “WHY MEETING ANOTHER’S GAZE IS SO POWERFUL” by By Christian Jarrett (8 January 2019) (compare the ideas emerging to what Eugene Delacroix said about painting as a means of communication)



Gratuitous philosophical allusion: “We know more and more about less and less until we eventually know everything about nothing” —Einstein


 Soon we will speak about DESCRIPTION and its sometimes subtle but always critical contribution to insight about a phenomenon … but always keep in mind, words constrain as much as they enable expression and thinking about experience—what you see and feel and think. 


As an art student I learned some words new to me that had no baggage– their meanings were completely new but the ideas they referred to were important to me. So here are a few Japanese terms for aesthetic qualities not easily otherwise described.  (can you find some specific real-world situations where these terms apply?)

·        Wabi: a subjective feeling evoked by an object; unassuming, solitary, calm, quiet, still, impoverished or unpretentious; melancholic, lonely, desolate (classic image: abandoned fisherman’s shack on a lonely beach buffeted by a strong wind on a gray wintry day)

·        Sabi: ancient, mature, seasoned, serene, mellowed, antique; lonely, solitary or melancholic (classic image: patina and signs of age/wear on a treasured antique)

·        Shibui: restrained, quiet, composed, understated, reserved, sedate; refined, elegant (classic images: a single delicate flower breaching cracks in a sidewalk; the quiet understated elegance of a formal tea ceremony)

·        Yugen: profound, uncertain, subtle; dark and mysterious (classic image: moon shining behind a veil of clouds, or the morning mist veiling a mountainside)

A few other terms new to me that I’ve encountered in recent months:

  • Flâneur: strolling like a tourist exploring new territory who is both passionately interested and yet disconnected (does that mean more objective?)    ( link to essay in Paris Review ) Are you a flâneur in A&O?
  • Razliubut: Russian to fall out of love;  and Toska: Russian for insatiable longing (homesick? Lovesick?). 

INTERESTED IN WORDS?  Check out “The Untranslatable Emotions You Never Knew You Had” By David Robson [26 January 2017]

[i].  Alfred Korzybski 1948:58)  Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. (3rd edition) The International Non-Aristotelian Publishing Co, Lakeville CT)[ “The map is not the thing mapped” epigraph by Eric. T. Bell to Korzybski’s Chapter XVIII; also, “an ideal map is self-reflexive” (Royce) in Supplement III, p 751.

[ii]  “On Exactitude in Science” by  Jorge Luis Borges…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”  link

Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.  —Suarez Miranda,Viajes devarones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658   https://kwarc.info/teaching/TDM/Borges.pdf