A&O – ART notes



ART is hard–maybe impossible–to define


“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf observed in her diaryLooked at, it vanishes.” ‘The same could be said of the soul of art, or perhaps of anything of substance and complexity — to write or speak about the meaning of a painting or a poem or a symphony is to flatten and impoverish its essence in some measure.’   

This resonates with our course epigraph (“always becoming, never is“) and William James’ view of  the present moment: “Where is it, this present?  It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”  


These ideas are also connected to one of the great balancing acts in human cognition: The balance (some might say tension) between sapience (thought) and sentience (feeling).


Discussed in the context of integrative biology, “ART” refers to both a PROCESS and a PRODUCT: something we do and the outcome of those actions.   It reflects the manner in which a diversity of COGNITIVE PROCESSES are coordinated.  

In other terms, ART meets biological needs–including the needs “to know and to be known”).  It can also be understood as

  • EXPRESSIVE (the “creating of art” … acting on one’s self or environment; meeting the need to create as a means of communicating within and between individuals. It involves actions (or their suppression) and projecting or representing the state of the artist. 
  • RECEPTIVE (the perception and “appreciation of art”…attending to one’s self or environment; meeting the “recipient’s” needs) is interpretive in that SELECTIVE ATTENTION is involved.  This is moderated by the recipient’s priorities and what is “allowed” through to deeper levels of assimilation or accommodation.)
  • MEDIUM (“TRANSMISSIVE”?)(the physical substance that enables the transfer of information–the means by which EXPRESSION is RECEIVED.    [how do artists choose their medium? See how 22 artists relate to their chosen media HERE]


  • INTERACTIVITY with the processes and the products is always in play as they are fine-tuned to approximate optimal effectiveness. (This can be related to PLAY)


Questions of INTENTION arise because many aesthetically interesting products are INCIDENTAL to some other action an individual is motivated to express. 

We tend to refer to deliberate acts or objects that aim to provide information to another individual as WORKS OF ART, while aesthetically interesting phenomena that or unintended or incidental are ARTIFACTS.   Since peoples motives and the usefulness of their actions are not always apparent, even to the person doing it, the lines between ART and ARTIFACT are not easily determined.      

Incidental (collateral or “unintended”) consequences are of great interest in EVOLUTIONARY theory because it is often the raw material from which other adaptive functions become significant. 

  • For example, an animal’s autonomic nervous system may respond to a stressor by contracting surface muscles that might protect it from trauma (to conserve energy or minimize blood loss in the event of a wound). 
    • A  mild example is frisson (goose-bumps)– when some of these muscles, the pilomotors around the base of hair or feathers are contracted, the appearance of the animal changes.  IF that change provides an advantage (say in chasing off predators or attracting mates) it may become more prominant in subsequent generations.  voilà! the peacock’s tail !

The processes involve PRODUCTION and PERCEPTION of aesthetic phenomena–actions or objects that potentially transmit information of biological interest.  These correspond to EXPRESSIVE  or RECEPTIVE aesthetics, to borrow terms from the clinic.  

What is an “aesthetic experience?”

“…aesthetic experience  relies on a distributed neural architecture, a set of brain areas involved in emotion, perception, imagery, memory, and language,’’ and that it ‘‘emerges from networked interactions, the workings of intricately connected and coordinated brain systems that, together, form a flexible architecture enabling us to develop new arts and to see the world around us differently.”         (Hartley (2015)[i]

NOW, Read about STIMULI and COGNITIVE PROCESSES engaged when stimuli perceived as ART are RECEIVED: the DEEP ETHOLOGY of RECEPTIVE ART


[i] Lucy Hartley (2015) Review of  Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience by G. Gabrielle Starr. (Cambridge,MA:MIT Press, 2013. p xv)    Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 4 (May 2015), pp. E280-E283 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/679474  Accessed: 12-07-2017 14:33 UTC   [saved at C:\Users\Greenberg\Dropbox\NEW NOTES\A&O\A&O – review of FEELING BEAUTY .docx ]



   Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 4 (May 2015), pp. E280-E283 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/679474  Accessed: 12-07-2017 14:33 UTC   [saved at C:\Users\Greenberg\Dropbox\NEW NOTES\A&O\A&O – review of FEELING BEAUTY .docx ]



Communication–transfer of information–occurs both within and between LEVELS OF ORGANIZATION that can be described both within and between individuals.. That is, from cells to civilizations, there is a constant flow of energy that (arguably) serves to satisfy BIOLOGICAL NEEDS.   The level of organization we emphasize is that of the INDIVIDUAL, flanked by ORGANS that enable behavior at a “lower” level and COMMUNITY in which actions are potentially relevant to other individuals as we pursue the interlocked needs to “know and be known.”

With respect to communication within an individual…

“Know thyself!”

With respect to communication between individuals…

As has been said of painting, 

“…painting, that is to say the material thing called painting [is] no more than the pretext, than the bridge between the mind of the painter and that of the spectator.” (Read Delacroix’s comment on painting and a few connections his idea implies, including brain-to-brain communications. )

And of poetry, 

I believe poetry is also a bridge between solitudes. At its best, it transports us — through the nonlinear and irresistible persuasion of music and metaphor — into a state of receptive empathy, the closest thing we can get to truly understanding what it’s like to see the world as someone else does, to live inside another’s skin.” (excerpted from How poetry can help us say the unsayable” by Elizabeth Austen in the Seattle Times May 10, 2015)

The countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo said, “the first time I stood on stage and felt an audience completely motionless and silent, I realized that art has the ability to communicate complex emotions and ideas.  That deep communication with an audience is what made me want to be an artist.” (allarts.org/everywhere)

ART emphasizes an individual’s unique sensitivity[vi], creativity, powers of  “expression” and representation.[vii], and powers of “reception”   As a field, art emphasizes intuition and the sensual, and is subject to all those weaknesses of one’s perceptions–that is, senses are notoriously vulnerable to illusion, confusion, and bias and percepts are often of uncertain origin: that is, corresponding to systematic errors of senses or something of purely internal origin such as imagery imposed on scotoma, visual migraine, or vivid memories evoked by ambiguous stimuli.[viii] Non-conscious knowledge (latent learning, intuition) is highly valued and is often recognized by spontaneity and impulsiveness.  


Reality-testing of stimuli and the percepts they lead are cognitive processes that emphasize CORRESPONDENCE between an idea or contents of one’s mind and an external representation.  COHERENCE is the complementary form of reality-testing in which the validity of one’s ideas or actions is corroborated by how well they “fit in” with other ideas of that individual or the ideas of others.  The validity of an artist’s actions or production may be provided by other people’s applause or silence as representative of their shared but ineffable feelings.


Art emerges from “making a stimulus special” (Dissanayake 1992[ix]) and functions best by identifying and representing the “essence” of a constellation of ideas—a selective attention to a key fragment that evokes a larger phenomenon, a focal idea that can be the attractor for many related ideas—as in ecphory, the “seed” around which a constellation of related ideas forms.[x]  (Quoted from Greenberg et al 2017, The Art and Science of Teaching.) A stimulus is special because of the selective attention of the artist and the selective attention of the observer.  They necessary collaborate in every work of art”  (Adapted from Greenberg et al. 2017)


Can we say that art has meaning? 

Mark Johnson (2007) states that “meaning is more than words and deeper than concepts” (p.1) and “Following Dewey, [he makes the case] that aesthetics must become the basis for any profound understanding of meaning and thought.  Aesthetics is properly an investigation of everything that goes into human meaning-making, and its traditional focus on the arts  stems primarily from the fact that arts are exemplary cases of consummated meaning.” (p.xi)   


At its best, there is a conjunction MEANING and WONDER  (van der Goor et al., 2017) –Even MEANING and AWE (read A&O notes on The SUBLIME)